11/16/2012 12:18 EST | Updated 01/16/2013 05:12 EST

What the Cha-Cha Can do for Your Health


It is a well-established fact that exercise is linked to an overall sense of well-being with clear physical and mental benefits. One particularly enjoyable form of exercise that can be adapted for all ability levels is dance.

Evidence suggests that dancing not only enhances flexibility and balance but also aerobic power (and thus, cardiovascular health) and lower body muscle endurance, as it is a weight-bearing exercise. It is also less stressful on the joints than other forms of exercise.

For older adults in particular, dancing can help prevent the loss of muscle strength and bone density. These effects combined with improvements in balance reduce the risk of falls, the leading cause of death by injury and the most common cause of nonfatal injuries and hospital admissions in older adults.

In addition to its physical benefits, dancing also promotes psychological and mental well-being. Performing movements in sync with music requires cognitive processing, stimulating the mind. Moreover, dancing generally occurs in group settings, offering a sense of community and fostering relationships, both old and new. Social ties -- our connections to other people -- provide emotional support, reducing depression, loneliness and stress levels.

Overall, dancing touches on many factors important to promoting the highest quality of life.

The benefits of dancing are most evident in studies investigating its impact on various conditions including Type 2 diabetes, Parkinson's and dementia, all prominent diseases in the senior population. These studies are based on the "dance therapy movement" which has roots in the post-Second World War setting. Marian Chace taught classes to WWII vets in the psychiatric unit at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in DC and went on to found the American Dance Therapy Association in 1966, an organization still in existence today. Recent studies have produced statistical evidence for the benefits of dance.

In 2009, Carolyn Murrock, RN, PhD, and her colleagues conducted a pilot study investigating the effects of dancing on diabetes. They found that dancing twice a week for 12 weeks significantly reduced blood pressure, body fat and weight in African American women with diabetes. Thus dancing with peers appears to be an effective strategy to improve diabetes outcomes and overall health. Another study published in February 2012 found a strong, positive correlation between dancing and short- and long-term symptom improvement in individuals with Parkinson's disease. The Argentine tango in particular was linked to improvements in range of motion, gait, balance, hand movements and rigidity of facial muscles.

A pilot study conducted in Korea in 2011 looked at the effects of dance on cognitive function in elderly patients with metabolic syndrome, a condition correlated with an increased risk of cognitive impairment and dementia. In particular, the group that practiced the Cha-Cha twice a week for six months performed better on various tests of cognitive function than the control group.

Another study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that regular dancing was associated with a reduced risk of dementia. As dementia affects millions of seniors in the United States and Canada, potential early interventions to improve quality of life are critical.

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